- Maria Jane Jewbury's The Oceanides, a series of poems published
in the Athenaeum between December 29, 1832 and December 28,
1833, was initiated in response to the author's voyage to India in
the fall of 1832. Jewsbury had recently married William Kew Fletcher
and the couple were headed to Bombay so that Fletcher could assume
a position as chaplain in the East India Company. The work takes on
an elegiac status in retrospect since the last four poems were published
after Jewsbury's death from cholera
at Poonah on October 4, 1833, fourteen months after her wedding. It
is not clear when Jewsbury's friends and editor in England learned
of her death. There was no indication in the Athenaeum, until
June of 1834, five months after the last poem in the series was published,
that Jewsbury had died (Fryckstedt, "The Hidden Rill II,"
468). William Fletcher was oddly impervious to the requests of his
wife's family in the aftermath of her death. Her sister Geraldine
wrote in 1836 of Fletcher's failure to send "the slightest communication"
since Maria Janes death (Fletcher had remarried by this time).
This standoff proved a serious deterrent to the preparation of a memorial
since, according to Geraldine, her sister had taken "all her
MS. papers and copies of all her fugitive pieces, which are so scattered
many of them in most obscure periodicals now extinct, and done without
her signature that it would be impossible to collect them all"
lxvi.). Geraldine continues, "It is a source of great mortification
that we possess none of them for she either took with her the works
to which she had contributed or else cut out her own papers,
as the most convenient way of keeping copies of them all there, and
every thing she might write subsequently are in the hand of Mr. Fletcher"
- Well before Jewsbury's death, three weeks before her thirty-third
birthday, she had begun to establish herself as a working writer,
initially through contributions to the Manchester Gazette,
this despite the fact that she had assumed responsibility for the
running of her father's house and the care of her younger siblings
upon her mother's death in 1819. In a letter written in the early
1820s to Priscilla "Zillah" Watts (the wife of Alaric Watts,
the editor of the Literary Souvenir to which Jewsbury contributed),
Jewsbury depicted herself as an artist under siege, deeply envious
of her friend's tranquil existence:
How different is my condition at this present! Three
dear children are catechizing me at the rate of ten questions in
every five minutes. I am within hearing of one servant stoning a
kitchen floor; and of another practicing a hymn; and of a very turbulent
child and unsympathetic nurse next door. I think I could make a
decent paper descriptive of the miseries of combining literary tastes
with domestic duties. (Gillett xvii-xviii)
- Jewsbury's first major publication was the 1825 Phantasmagoria,
which she dedicated to William Wordsworth whose work she intensely
admired. She sent him a copy of the first volume of the two volume
It is about three years since I took up your poems, as
a study; and since then they have been more or less my daily companions,
ever able to afford me deep though tranquil delight. My poetical
dedication is not hyperbolical; it is simply, literally true. (Gillett
- She went on to single out Wordsworth's "Glen Almain,"
"She was a Phantom," "Ruth," "Tintern Abbey,"
"The Fountain," "The Highland Girl," and "Laodamia"
as being a few of the many poems which particularly affected her,
"sinking instantaneously into the heart" (Gillett xx). Wordsworth
wrote back, Jewsbury soon after got to meet him, and a friendship
was initiated between Jewsbury and Wordsworths daughter Dora.
A prolonged illness suffered by Jewsbury in the spring of 1826 induced
Wordsworth to write a peculiar
sonnet in her honor, apparently inspired by her enthusiasm for
stuffed birds. Wordsworth also addresses Jewsbury (as "Anna")
a sequel to an earlier poem, "Gold
and Silver Fishes in a Vase."
- Before Jewsbury embarked on her ill-fated trip to India, she had
published Letters to the Young (1828), Lays of Leisure Hours
(1829), The Three Histories (1830), and scores of poems and
essays published in annuals such as the Forget-me-not, the
Literary Souvenir, the Amulet, and the Juvenile Forget-me-not.
She clearly saw herself as part of a coterie of talented women writers,
that included Letitia Landon and Felicia Hemans. She wrote Alaric
Watts in January 1825 of her response to Letitia Landon's The Improvisatrice:
I have Miss Landon's "Improvisatrice" now before
me. I have half read it, and, without one mean or jealous feeling,
I understand what he felt who said, "The trophies of Miltiades
will not let me sleep." I read it merely as poetry, and endeavour
to forget that it was written by a woman, and then I am indeed delighted
with the exuberance of genius poured out in every page. No one could
suppose it to be the work of a young writer. There is in it a brilliant
yet condensed vigour of imagery and expression which might well
honour an older judgment. (Watts 2: 16)
The admiration was mutual; Landon reportedly said of Jewsbury: "I
never met with any woman who possessed her powers of conversation.
If her language had a fault, it was its extreme perfection. It was
like reading an eloquent book full of thought and poetry" (Watts
- Jewsbury had a close friendship with Hemans, and the character
of Egeria in The Three Histories is based on Hemans. Chorley's
Memorials of Mrs. Hemans (1836) excerpts passages from letters
that passed between the two women, including the following somber
musings by Jewsbury on her own oeuvre:
In the best of every thing I have done, you will find one
leading ideadeath: all thoughts, all images, all contrast
of thoughts and images, are derived from living much in the valley
of that shadow; from having learned life rather in the vicissitudes
of man than of woman, from the mind being Hebraic. My poetry,
except some half-dozen pieces, may be consigned to oblivion; but in
all you would find the sober hue, which to my mind's eye, blends equally
with the golden glow of sunset, and the bright green of spring, and
is seen equally in the 'temple of delight' as in the tomb of decay
and separation. I am melancholy by nature, cheerful by principle .
. . (70-71)
- Hemans, who went into mourning after Jewsbury's death, spoke of
her unrealized potential, commenting:
It [Jewsbury's death] hung the more heavily upon my spirits,
as the subject of death and the mighty future had so many times
been that of our most confidential communion. How much deeper power
seemed to lie coiled up as it were in the recesses of her mind than
was ever manifested to the world in her writings! Strange and sad
does it seem that only the broken music of such a spirit should
have been given to the earth, the full and finished harmony never
drawn forth! (Ellis 35)
- Hemans' and Jewsbury's own emphasis on her preoccupation with death
must be tempered, however, by attention to Jewsbury's sharp and witty
essays, for example, her spot-on imitation of contemporary book reviews.
In "First Efforts in Criticism," she begins one of two alternative
reviews of Edgar Percival Clerimont's Love and Idleness ("in
foolscap 8vo") as follows:
And who the deuce is Mr. Edgar Percival Clerimont? And
what is the reason he cannot be satisfied with his own name?for
that the above lot of syllables was ever pronounced in christian
baptism, passes our belief at any rate. Seriously we must put a
stop to this most vile affectation. If men will rant in rhyme, let
them rant away under their own natural cognomens of John Jenkins,
or Sam Simkins, or whatever else it may be, instead of assuming
some jingling, broken-backed quiz of a name, that tires one's jaw
as much as the mastication of a hard crust. (Gillett 9)
- The last of Jewsbury's "First Efforts in Criticism" is
a parody of the kind of omnibus review Robert Southey was noted for
penning. She begins with a daunting list of six treatises on different
aspects of mathematics, ranging from a volume on the alteration in
the standards for weights and measures to a minute inquiry into the
nature of the navigation tables. She ends the review by reference
to a "disquisition of twenty pages on things in general, with
particular mention of the Brazils, the Peninsular War, and Church
History" (Gillett 18). Wordswortheither because he had
not read the volume carefully or because he enjoyed a good joke at
a fellow poet's expensesent the Phantasmagoria, in which
this essay was included, to Southey who, unsurprisingly, was not amused.
- Jewsburys sense of humor, supported by a zest for adventure,
is demonstrated by her "Extracts
from a Lady's Log-Book," which complements The Oceanides
by describing in detail the material realities of her passage to India
in 1832. She writes:
[O]ur cabin, though one of the two best in the ship,
for convenience, light, air, and size, has a rather ludicrous drawback:
a good portion of some eighty dozen of poultry, ducks, geese, fowl,
pigeons, &c., &c., have their local habitation in pens over
our heads; and all day, and almost all night, they peck, crow, quack,
gabble, and quarrel according to their several natures. The sound
of their beaks resembles a shower of hail; they are of necessity
cramped for room, and, like children, are always crying out for
food. (Jewsbury, "Extracts" 777)
- J. W. Massie, who in 1822 followed the same route as Jewsburyfrom
Gravesend, Devonshire, to Madeira, around the Cape of Good Hope, to
Ceylonleaves a more fully detailed account of the journey and
the stopping ponts along the way in his 1840 two-volume Continental
India, but Jewsbury more vividly conveys the exhilaration and
ennui of the voyage. She describes the insipidity of female occupation"[Ladies]
have, even here, chests of drawers to arrange, disarrange, and re-arrange;
they have muslin to hem, caps to quill, their outfits to discuss,
and new tunes to play until they become old" (Jewsbury "Extracts"
825). But she also describes moments of transcendent sublimity, eschewing
fantasies of mermaids and men, of "rocks strewn with pearls,"
as too fanciful to be associated with a sea that strikes her as "too
grand, too stern, too real, to be connected with anything that is
pretty " (Jewsbury "Extracts" 825).
- The stern nature of the sea would have been manifestly apparent
to anyone traveling on an East Indiaman ship, a type of vessel that
was not well suited for human cargo. In response to English tax assessments,
which were based on a ships beam with no regard for its length
or depth, the East Indiaman ship was designed with a hull too long
for its breadth, and sailed very poorly as a result (Miller 125).
These ships lurched and rolled in a manner that inevitably produced
seasickness in novice travelers. Thomas Twining, who boarded an East
Indiaman at Deal in 1792, wrote, "I was scarcely able to stand
without laying hold of some fixed object. I also became exceedingly
oppressed by a close suffocating air, and by a sickening offensive
smell, to which I know nothing comparable, and can only designate
it by its usual appellation on boardthe smell of the ship"
(Miller 124). Genteel British travelers like the newly married Fletchers
attempted to keep up the amenities of polite society. Well-heeled
passengers furnished their cabins before coming on board with sofas
and even pianos provided by dock-side purveyors who bought parlor
accouterments from arriving passengers and resold them to travelers
poised to embark. But passengers had to nail their tables and chairs
to the floor in anticipation of their ships erratic movements.
Similarly, voyaging ladies and gentlemenat least those who were
not retching in their cabinsdressed for meals at regular hours,
despite the dinnerwares tendency to fly into their laps (Miller
- In one of the most dramatic accounts of onboard disequilibrium,
the Reverend Hobart Caunter described a storm in the 1830s which swept
a woman passenger out of her cabin and carried her into the main cabin
"head foremost . . . dripping like a mermaid, her hair hanging
about her shoulders in thin strips" (qtd. in Wild 76).
- Monster waves were only one of the many dangers posed by the passage
to India. The risk of pirates, enemy men-of-war, and privateers was
so great that all male passengers were expected to study the quarter
bill, a list which assigned each man on board an action station he
was expected to commandeer in the event of an attack (Miller 128).
And shipwrecks were a well-chronicled reality. One of the more chilling
shipwreck narratives, an account of the Grosvenor, which went down
in 1782, described the survivors largely unsuccessful attempt
to make it to the nearest Dutch settlement (105 people disappeared
into the hinterland of Africa), and the rumored fate of some of the
women on board:
It is said by officers at the Cape that some of those
unfortunate females who survived the shipwreck had it in their power
to return; but, apprehending that their place in society was lost,
and that they should be degraded in the eyes of their equals, after
spending so great a portion of their lives with savages, who had
compelled them to a temporary union, they resolved not to forsake
the fruits of that union, and abide with the chiefs who protected
them. (qtd. in Miller 141)
- Given the grim reality and rumored possibilities, Jewsburys
prose account of her journey seems relatively ebullient. On the day
she lost sight of the British coastline"the last faint
trace of the Devonshire coast is melted into the sky"typically
an occasion for wistful thoughts of family and friends left behind,
she wrote, "[T]he beauty and novelty of the scene charmed away
sadness" (Gillett 89).
- Despite her rejection of bejeweled oceanic mythology, of mermaids
and "rocks strewn with pearls," she named her series of
poems about the voyage after the daughters of Oceanus and Tethys,
the nymphs of the ocean. Apollodorus lists seven of these entities:
Asia, Styx, Electra, Doris, Eurynome, Amphitrite, and Metis. Hesiod's
account of them brings the list to forty-one and includes Asia, Calypso,
Cerceis, Eudora, Europa, Galaxaure, Hippo, Ianthe, Polydora, and Xanthe,
among others. They mostly have little distinct identity except for
the few who were lovers of gods and men (for example, Metis was swallowed
by Zeus to produce Athena). Oceanic mythological figures were part
of the culture Jewsbury left behind in England. King George III was
figured as the monarch of the sea on a coach decorated with tritons
(Plumb 179), and Josiah Wedgwood marketed cameos, intaglios, and statues
featuring Neptune, Triton, Nereus, and Nereide. They were also part
of the on-board entertainment for East Indiaman passengers. The festivities
revolving around the crossing of the equator included the ceremonial
shaving and dunking of travelers who were crossing for the first time,
a celebration overseen by a sailor dressed as King Neptune (Miller
134). Jewsburys poems, however, do not involve themselves with
the particular workings of the obscure Oceanides; rather the titles
allusion to these mythological entities yokes loosely together a series
of poetic meditations on the experience of transport and exile.
- The poems that make up The Oceanides were published
serially in the Athenaeum, a journal edited from 1830 to
1846 by Charles Wentworth Dilke, who had launched a vigorous campaign
against literary puffery. His aim was, according to Leslie Marchand,
"to establish the reputation of the magazine as a critical review
of complete independence, free from the warping influences of politics,
religion, business, and so far as possible, from the bias of personal
friendship or enmity" (98). Jewsbury was a regular reviewer in
the early 1830s; her known contributions to the journal from June
1830 to the end of 1831 are listed in an appendix to Monica Correa
Fryckstedt's study of her life and career (Jewsburys contributions
extended beyond 1831, but the marked file of the Athenaeum
upon which Fryckstedt bases her list does not include editors
identifying markings for 1832 issues).
- The poems included in The Oceanides series are linked through
their mapping of Jewsburys routethe first poem records
the narrators last glimpse of the English mainland; the second
finds the ship off the coast of Teneriffe; in the seventh poem the
narrator is circling the Cape of Good Hope; the ninth poem describes
Ceylon, close to the endpoint of the journey; and, in the last poem,
the narrator bids farewell to the sea, presumably from a point on
the Indian mainland. The poems are also unified by the temporal arc
of Jewsburys journeyfrom the voyages beginning on
September 19, 1832 to its end, according to the date of the last poem,
on March of 1833. It is precisely a sense of temporal and geographic
remove that Jewsburys poetic sequence movingly enacts. The poems
record the narrators changing attitudes to the physical presence
of the ocean, as well as to the exile that the oceans looming
presence constantly recalls. In the first poem of the sequence, the
ship is figured as a moving city "Freighted with business, woe
and weal / Freighted with Englands sons and daughters,"
and despite the encircling presence of the sea, reminders of home
The sea is round them: many a week
They oer that deep salt sea must roam,
And yet the sounds of land will break
The spell, and send their spirits home;
The cry of prisoned household bird,
Shrill mingling with the boatswains call;
With surge and sail, the lowing herd,
And harkstreet music over all!
- A canary in a cage or farm animals that Jewsbury herself heard trampling
outside her cabin easily conjure up the parlor trappings and pastoral
landscape of the country left behind. By the eighth poem in the sequence,
however, there is a clearer sense of estrangement. The vantage point
provided by the narrators tropical locale renders the traditions
and costumes of England offputting and uncomfortable:
The blazing Christmas fire
Is but a name of cheer,
As from foe or demon dire
Should we shrink, if it were here:
And robes defying cold,
Are but treasures in the North;
From the muslins snowy fold
We languidly look forth.
- The Oceanides claims attention as a poetic sequenceby
definition, a grouping of lyric poems which interact as an organic
whole (Rosenthal and Gall 9)rather than as a series of discrete
poems on related subjects strung together like beads on a wire. The
series portrays a narrator who, pitched into a life-altering situationset
sail on a forbidding sea in a vulnerable vesselrecords her shifting
emotional responses in seven- or eight-syllable simply rhymed lines
of quiet, and sometimes incantatory, beauty. Jewsburys first
claim to lasting literary fame may be founded on the wit and intelligence
of her essays, reviews, and letters. But the unusual historical circumstances
that inform The Oceanides as a whole, and the lyrical charm
of the individual poems, make them a moving and memorable culmination
of a short but distinguished literary career.
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